The Basics of Nonprofit Marketing Messaging

January 16, 2018

The Basics of Nonprofit Marketing Messaging

After you’ve described your audiences, delineated the right media for your messages to them, and decided on the channels for delivery of those messages, you need to think about what you’re going to say.  In this post, we’ll discuss:

(1) Why nonprofit marketing messaging is important;

(2) Four components of a good foundation for nonprofit marketing messaging;

(3) Three key nonprofit marketing messages that you should develop and keep in your back pocket;

(4) How the three key messages can be used to develop other types of messages; and

(5) Basic rules to keep in mind when drafting messages.

nonprofit marketing messaging


1. Why is Nonprofit Marketing Messaging IMPORTANT?

Messaging is important because a nonprofit’s story can be more important than the work itself.  The impression you create in the minds of others about your organization and your unique approach to the work that you do is known as your “brand.” As one commentator points out “… brands still dominate the capital markets in the nonprofit sector. Decisions about support are a function of what the public thinks a nonprofit is doing far more than what it actually knows about what the organization is accomplishing.” (P. Frumkin, “Eight Building Blocks of Strong Nonprofit Brands,” Nonprofit Quarterly, Oct. 2, 2015). 

Like so many other aspects of growth, building your organization’s reputation through strong communications and branding takes time.  Frumkin advises:

Be patient about building your reputation, budget, and brand over time. Realize that the more success you have, the more success you will have. The self-reinforcing cycle of brand building and resources flow will eventually lift your organization if you do good work and communicate your message effectively. (P. Frumkin, “Eight Building Blocks of Strong Nonprofit Brands.")


You probably won’t be surprised to learn that marketing messaging is rooted in the vision and mission statements contained in your organizational strategic plan, another reason that strategic planning is so fundamental to the success of any nonprofit. Beyond vision and mission, there are two other components that help to form the foundation for nonprofit marketing messaging.  They include a needs statement and your unique selling proposition (sometimes called a “positioning statement”).  Let’s look at these foundational components in more detail.

(i) vision

Your vision statement describes how the world will be different if you achieve your mission.  In his very helpful Nonprofit Marketing Handbook, Ben Delaney offers this as a vision statement for a hypothetical nonprofit tackling hunger in Central America: “ending hunger in Central America.” (B. Delaney, Ben Delaney's Nonprofit Marketing Handbook (2014).)

(ii) mission

Your mission statement lays out what you do, how, and for whom.  Both of these should be brief.  (You can find further guidance on how to craft vision and mission statements in this post).  Ben Delaney suggests that if you need to take a breath in the middle of your mission statement, it’s too long.  By way of example, he offers this for the hypothetical nonprofit tackling hunger in Central America: “We will end hunger in Central America by teaching the indigenous peoples how to farm more effectively.” (B. Delaney).

(iii) needs statement

A needs statement is the rationale behind your vision and mission. It succinctly states why your organization exists, i.e., the problem you are attacking and the solution for which you need your constituents support if you are to be successful in delivering on your mission.  Building on the example above, the needs statement for that same organization might read as follows: “Thousands of children in Central America go to bed hungry every night.  If their parents were to use different seed and learn a few simple techniques, they could produce 50% more maize and feed their children enough every day.” (B. Delaney).

A recent book, Start with Why, suggests that your Needs Statement, and, by association, the longer description of “the challenge,” below, are more important than almost any other message you might draft.  In the aforementioned book, author Simon Sinek suggests that “Why you do what you do as an organization” fosters a sense of belonging and has more emotional impact than what you do as an organization. He suggests that people in leadership positions who want to get others to take action should always begin by explaining WHY something has to be done. That way, they create a sense of belonging, which makes others want to take action. When people are emotionally invested, they join movements, buy products and brands – and even use them as symbols to show others who they are and who they support. The more clearly you describe and communicate the WHY, the more people will like it, because people don’t give to what you do; they give to WHY you do what you do.

Nonprofit marketing messaging
Adapted from Simon Sinek's, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2011).
(iv) unique selling proposition (a.k.a. positioning statement)

Your unique selling proposition is comprised of a few compelling reasons that set the work of your organization apart from that of your competitors doing similar work in your field.  In crafting these statements, it is helpful to address (1) what you do; (2) whom you serve; (3) what’s different about the way you do your work; (4) the impact you make (a statistic on outcomes can be helpful here); (5) the unique benefit derived from your programs, services and/or products. (N. Schwartz, The 4 Cornerstones of Your Nonprofit Message Platform).

Sticking with Ben Delaney's hypothetical nonprofit, its unique selling proposition might be stated this way:  “We provided more money to support farmer training than any other organization. Last year, we helped 8,431 farmers learn new techniques so their children had enough to eat. Won’t you help?” (B. Delaney).

3. three key nonprofit MARKETING messages to develop and keep in your back pocket

Ben Delaney suggests crafting three types of key messages  as the basis of your fundraising case, which can provide a foundation for almost any other type of project that might come your way:

(i) the challenge

This message puts meat on the bones of your needs statement.  Where the needs statement is succinct, the challenge statement is somewhat longer, a few sentences putting a bit more meat on the bones of the challenge you are intending to address. With respect to the hypothetical nonprofit tackling hunger in Central America, Ben Delaney puts the challenge this way:

In the highlands of Central America, farms have become less productive over the past ten years. Soil is depleted and water is hard to come by. Changing climate in the area will probably make this dire situation worse. Children are already getting less to eat than they need to thrive, and infant mortaility is high. Per capita income is less than $800 per year. (B. Delaney).

What I like about Ben’s example is the clear picture it paints of the situation.  If you’ve never lived on or around a farm, waning agricultural productivity may not be something to which you can relate directly.  But in this day and time, we can all appreciate the fact that our water supply is not infinite. 

You’d have to live your life under a rug not to be familiar with the fact that there are many places in the world where children are hungry and dying as a result of malnutrition, poverty and the ills that follow in the footsteps of both of those conditions.  In a few short sentences, Ben has identified a “why” to which we can all relate.

(ii) the solution

The solution is what your nonprofit is going to do to turn the situation around that is uniquely different from others who have tried or may currently be trying.  Ben Delaney’s description is as follows:

We know how to fix it. Working with a team lead by Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Marie Curie, we have developed a new, natural hybrid of maize. It will grow in the increasingly warm and dry conditions we are seeing. As a bonus, this new breed of maize is more nutritious and insect resistant. Using this new seed, and some recently developed, simple techniques for managing their hill-side farms, the indigenous farmers in Central America will be able to grow more corn, feed their families better, and lift the standard of living of the entire region. (B. Delaney).

(iii) the ask

The ask adds the all-important element of emotion to the mix –keeping people in the homes that were built by their ancestors, feeding and educating hungry children, helping proud, hard-working people realize the fruits of their labors. It’s the American dream made possible for a hopeful people a hemisphere away all for less than a dollar a day:

With your help we will fix it. We can help the indigenous farmers of Central America remain in their centuries-old family homes. We can help their children get enough to eat, and because they are no longer hungry, a better education. We can help these proud people live longer, more productive, happier lives. All it takes is $329 to help an entire village – 200 people – live better lives. You can help an entire village, for less than a dollar a day — won’t you pitch in? (B. Delaney)

4. what to do next with the key three 

Once your board and staff agree with and learn the key three, you need to make a conscious effort to weave these messages into everything that you do as an organization.  Ben coins this idea of using everything right down to how someone answers the phone to reinforce your brand as “System Marketing.” I may be dating myself with this comment, but over two decades ago, I worked with a marketing firm that called this same idea “mission marketing.”

Mission marketing recognizes that many nonprofits are small fish in a large sea, i.e., they face stiff competition often from organizations doing the same or similar work in the same geographic locale. You can’t afford to buy all the billboards in your city.  Even if you could, it might not help you meet your mission because your audience is not driving around the beltway in cars spending time looking at billboards.  They are, however, going to the same churches as some of your staff members. Through extracurricular activities, they are in some of the same Facebook and LinkedIn groups.  Your staff is, therefore, in a position to communicate your messages through these channels by way of what they say in church activities and on social media. So you tweak the “key three” from above to be able to relate your mission to these groups, hence the phrase, “mission marketing.

Beyond the foregoing, the key three should inform development of your tagline, what you say on event invitations, in brochures and as part of any speaking opportunity. A good tagline is as important as a logo in capturing the essence of your organization and succinctly telling your story in as few words as possible. It should be used everywhere, not more than eight words in length, and considered your organization’s most important message. For the hunger group described in the foregoing examples, its tagline might be this: "feeding the indigenous people of Central America by providing seeds and knowledge." (B. Delaney)

5. basic rules for crafting nonprofit marketing messages

Now that we are clear about the types of messages to create and about the subject matter of same, we need to briefly discuss some basic rules to guide your drafting.  These are not things you haven’t heard a million times before:

Be Clear:  Use simple language and words that are easy to understand.  I spent the weekend trying to hoist aboard a text from which I am to create a PowerPoint presentation on conservation for a college class later this week. Here’s the title of one of the two chapters I was asked to read: Heuristic Proceduralism: A General Method.  Every word in the text was equally as dense and obtuse.  My cats playing scrabble could have put together something more intelligible. But let’s keep me off of my soapbox.  Marketers can’t ever escape responsibility for being crystal clear, even if the bar is not set as high for academics.

Be Concise:  Take note of sentence length, striving to keep them at ten words or less. Use short, punchy sentences and unambiguous language.

Be Contextual:  The way you communicate the key three to your wealthiest donors will likely be vastly different than the way you communicate them to prospective recipients of your services.  These audiences are likely not using the same marketing channels.  They are also not likely to receive messages via the same media.


Delaney, B. Ben Delaney's Nonprofit Marketing Handbook: The Hands-on Guide to Communications and Marketing in Nonprofit Organizations. (2014). (Available at:

Frumkin, P. “Eight Building Blocks of Strong Nonprofit Brands.” Nonprofit Quarterly, Oct. 2, 2015. (Available at:

Schwartz, N. “The 4 Cornerstones of Your Nonprofit Message Platform.”  (No Date) (Available at:

Sinek, S. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. (2011) (Available at:

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